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  • The Computer Genealogist: 17th-Century History with a 21st-Century Twist: The Salem Witchcraft Trials on the Internet

    Rhonda R. McClure

    Published Date : April 29, 2002

    It has been more than 300 years since that fateful January day in 1692 when nine-year-old Betty Parris fell ill in the soon-to-be ill-fated town of Salem Village. The resounding question is still the same: “How did it happen?”

    This question has been hotly debated for years. There are scholarly works on all of the major theories including ergot in the rye,[1] the idea that certain women were chosen because of their non-conformist ways,[2] and that the hysteria was the result of serious strife among the residents as theocratic government began to come under question.[3] And still, three hundred years later, these same theories are debated. The difference now is where they are debated.

    The Internet affords many luxuries, among them easy access, convenience, and an extended community in which to share. Researchers, scholars, and hobbyists alike are privy to a vast array of websites on every conceivable subject. It is, then, to be expected that the Salem witchcraft hysteria would be addressed on the Internet. In fact, a search of the AltaVista search engine revealed more than 2,500 web pages dealing with this subject. A search of Google’s newsgroups revealed more than 8,000 messages on this topic and approximately 166 on the ergot theory alone.

    In seeking out information about Salem’s most remembered event, a researcher can find everything from a look at the event from a lawyer’s viewpoint to an online game by National Geographic that allows us to experience the events from the eyes of an accused witch.[4] The more one wants to know on this subject, the more will be found, allowing researchers the chance to form their own opinions about what really happened. While scholars have not created all of the websites and messages, the interesting dialogues afford researchers the option to view opinions from a variety of approaches and levels of expertise.

    Genealogically speaking, it should probably be expected that the ancestry and descendants of those unfortunate accused witches of Salem would be considered. The number of researchers who can trace their New England ancestry to an accused witch is impressive. When you factor in those accused in Andover in the same year, or other miscellaneous accusations in other New England towns throughout the years, it is easy to discover not only one but several accused souls among your ancestors.

    While genealogists strive to connect the familial relationships, many of today’s researchers are also looking to embellish these dry facts with historical accounts of the lives of their ancestors. For those with accused Salem witch ancestors, the documents were always prolific, though sometimes not easily located. With the Internet, and the new technology available, many of those same documents are now accessible.

    The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law has compiled an interesting website of famous trials including the Rosenberg trial (1951), the trial of Susan B. Anthony (1873), Sacco-Vanzetti trial (1921),  and the Amistad trials (1839-1840). It goes without saying that such a site would not be complete without the inclusion of the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692.[5]

    The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law website offers a well-written overview of the events of that fateful year. It addresses the turmoil that Salem Village was undergoing and suggests that “nothing about this tragedy was inevitable.”[6] Author Douglas Linder mentions the economy, jealousy, and teenage boredom as contributing factors to the events. The overview is a good place to begin with this particular site. Links embedded in the text take the researcher to transcripts of many of the documents that were created during the hysteria — including arrest warrants, examinations, trial records, petitions, and death warrants.

    This site also includes a transcript of Cotton Mather’s Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, written in 1689. This became a best-selling book for Mather and was found in the library of Rev. Samuel Parris, father of Betty, the first girl to be afflicted. While the website’s collection of images concentrates on portraits of key players, as well as artistic renditions of some of the events, it does include a copy of the arrest warrant of John Proctor and Sarah Cloyce, the one Towne sister to survive the events. Both Rebecca (Towne) Nurse and Mary (Towne) Esty would be hanged before common sense again took hold of Salem Village.

    Of particular interest at this site is a link to transcriptions of petitions for compensation. These are dated 1710-1711 and show requests by surviving family members for compensation for the terrible ordeals they endured. A fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials and of the compensation hearings can be found on video in Three Sovereigns for Sarah, which depicts the terrible events of 1692 through the eyes of Sarah Cloyce, mentioned above, who at the end of the film was given three gold sovereigns to compensate for her own suffering and the death of two sisters.

    Anything that offers insight into the lives of ancestors may hold a clue as to where records exist. While fictional, Three Sovereigns for Sarah is one of the more accurate films. Relying on Richard B. Trask, one-time archivist for Danvers (known as Salem Village until 1752) and historian Stephen Nissenbaum, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and co-author of Salem Possessed and Salem-Village Witchcraft, this film gives a stark reality to the events of 1692. Such a gripping tale leads the curious to seek additional information.

    In the past such information came from books. Those with a keen interest have amassed many volumes about the events and the people involved. Unfortunately, access to the now over eight hundred original documents created during the trials has been difficult.

    Modern technology, where the events of the Salem witch trials are concerned, goes beyond the simple marvel of the Internet. Digitization of documents offers scholars and interested hobbyists the first opportunity to read and study these texts.

    Perhaps the best site to view fully the new technology is “ Witchcraft in Salem Village.” The University of Virginia’s Electronic Text Center, Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Special Collections Department, and the Geospatial and Statistical Data Center are working with the Boston Public Library, Danvers Archival Center, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Massachusetts Archives, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. Through this collaborative effort, interested parties now have access to transcriptions and digitized images of many rare documents and books.

    As savvy computer users, contemporary genealogical researchers naturally gravitate to sites with search engines. “Witchcraft in Salem Village’s” section devoted to “ The Salem Witchcraft Papers ” contains a verbatim transcript of the legal documents generated during the arrests, trials, and deaths of accused witches in 1692. These documents are every-word searchable, allowing you to look for a particular individual and discover every document in which that person is mentioned.

    In addition to supplying the researcher with a select list of accusers, a list of those accused, and a list of the afflicted girls, this site offers lists of jurors, Puritan ministers involved, and judges. Perhaps the most interesting list on this site is the list of defenders.

    Benjamin Ray, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, contributed extensively to the Salem Witchcraft Project. In researching his own familial connection to Salem Village he made a discovery. “I noted that my family’s names were always listed mainly as defenders, which is something I hadn’t heard about.” He said in a conversation with National Endowment for the Humanities chairman William R. Ferris. “You hear about accusers and the accused and the ministers and judges, but there were a number of villagers who were trying to save those who were accused by signing petitions, testimonials, on their behalf.”[7]

    Few people realize that such lists exist. Yet, there were those who signed petitions, sometimes at the risk of being accused themselves. In the case of Rebecca Nurse, there were thirty-six signatures. One of the two petitions signed in favor of John and Elizabeth Proctor contained thirty-two signatures of former neighbors of the Proctors who in 1692 were then living in Ipswich.

    One of the most ambitious sections of the University of Virginia’s site is the “ Witchcraft Archives.” This section of the site includes digitized documents from many of the collaborating institutions: 542 documents from the Peabody Essex Museum (taken from the Essex County Court Archives and the Essex Institute Collection), 152 from the Massachusetts Archives, 53 from the Massachusetts Historical Society, and 45 from the Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts of the Boston Public Library, among others.

    While the focus for genealogists is still the family tree, sites devoted to history offer a method of expanding what many see as the dry facts of the ancestor’s life. For those looking for published lineages, these are also  available in abundance, though they are not discussed in this article. Many of these compiled sites should be used with caution. Often they do not cite sources, nor have they done any original research, content instead  simply to republish misinformation online. Compiled genealogies of persons involved in the Salem witchcraft trials can be found at such sites as

    •      FamilySearch.org

    •      Genealogy.com

    •      Ancestry.com

    •      RootsWeb’s WorldConnect

    Searching in engines such as AltaVista and Google for the specific individual will also reveal published pages that may include genealogy. Once located, such information should always be verified through original documents or well-respected, secondary sources.

    While the cause of the hysteria that swept through Salem Village in 1692 is still debated, it is clear that the Internet is offering new ways for those interested in the subject not only to read and study the events, but also to view documents and rare books until now available only by visiting repositories sometimes far away. For many, such websites will be the first opportunity to view original documents, no longer having to guess if available transcriptions are accurate.


    Notes

    1 Linda R. Caporael, “Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?” Science 192 (April 2, 1976): 21-26.

    2 Carol F. Karlsen. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987).

    3 Enders A. Robinson. Salem Witchcraft and Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables (Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, 1992).

    4 Salem Witchcraft Hysteria, National Geographic, online

    5 Famous American Trials: Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, online.

    6 Douglas Linder, “An Account of Events in Salem,” The Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, online.

    7An Internet WITCH-HUNT, Digitizing Salem Village, A Conversation with Benjamin Ray,” originally printed in the September/October 2000 issue of Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, online.

     

    Rhonda R. McClure is the author of The Genealogist’s Computer Companion and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Online Genealogy.

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